As we focus on diversity and its many facets each month, we thought it well-timed to share a story that began at the turn of the 20th century. A period in time before Black History month was recognized and celebrated by our nation each February. When time was moving forward and history was rewriting its destiny. This is a glimpse into the story of “the first black woman millionaire in America”, Madame CJ Walker, whose contributions helped transform the economic, architectural and entrepreneurial landscape of Indianapolis, while leaving an indelible imprint on history.
Sarah Breedlove was born in the state of Louisiana. According to historic annals, she was orphaned at the age of six, married at fourteen and widowed at twenty, and had a two-year old daughter. Following the death of her husband, she moved to St. Louis in search of a better life, and as fate would have it, she went to work for a black hair-care entrepreneur. Life took a dramatic change for this young woman as she began to experiment and develop a treatment to counter the effects of her own personal hair loss, a formula she came to call “Wonderful Hair Grower”.
In 1905, she opened her company’s corporate headquarters in Denver, Colorado and named herself Madame CJ Walker while leveraging her third husband’s advertising expertise, Charles J. Walker, to help build the business. Five years later Madame Walker went on to move the company headquarters to Indianapolis and the “Walker-system” was well on its way to being a success. Her line of nearly 20 hair and beauty products would revolutionize the industry as it was being sold throughout the United States by a bevy of devoted saleswomen.
The Walker Company, as it became known, went on to have a network of 20,000 licensed sales agents in the US, Central America and the Caribbean selling her products. As in business, Madame Walker was similarly committed to philanthropy, supporting the YWCA, NAACP and countless other charities. Although Madame Walker died prematurely at the age of 51, she left a remarkable legacy.
Those of us living in the Indianapolis area are likely familiar with the Walker Building as part of the historic renovation district in downtown Indianapolis. In fact, Audrey and Nick Taylor once resided within a stone’s throw of this very building. Today, the Madame Walker Theatre Center is home for numerous activities as well as being listed on the register of National Historic Landmarks. It is indeed, a symbolic tribute to Madame CJ Walker and the human spirit.
“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success, and if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”
– Madame CJ Walker